Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Smelly skins bringing about fishy fashion in Kenya

Smelly skins bringing about fishy fashion in Kenya

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Industrial chemist Newton Owino hangs tanned fish pelts at his mini-tannery in western Kenya on June 11. TONY KARUMBA /afp

Smelly skins bringing about fishy fashion in Kenya

Women sharpen their knives before setting about stinking piles of fish skins, flesh and bones that cover the floor at an unusual artisanal tannery in western Kenya.

Set up by a 39-year-old industrial chemist named Newton Owino, Alisom Products separates fish skins from the rest of the waste, then tans them to make a kind of leather used to manufacture handbags, wallets, shoes, hats and jackets.

Kisumu, on Lake Victoria, is a piscatorial place, a city where grilled tilapia and Nile perch are a ubiquitous delicacy, and from where cleaned fillets are exported around the region and the world. But Owino saw opportunity in the leftovers.

An estimated 150,000 tonnes of fish waste is produced every year and 80 percent of it is dumped. Owino and his dozen employees offer an alternative.

“My major business here is [to] turn fish skin into leather,” he says, pacing the yard in gumboots and a polo shirt. “[There are] plenty of raw materials that we have around here.”

Fleets of bicycle transporters bring sacks of skins from fishermen, restaurants and factories to Owino’s little facility every day.

There, workers strip the last pieces of rancid flesh from fly-covered skins and hang them to dry on wooden beams, like clothes on a washing line. Hungry birds peck at his product.

The dried skins are stuffed inside a rusty hand-cranked drum and drenched in an acidic herbal solution, based on local fruits such as papaya or avocado, that tans them into fish leather.

“We now do what is called the drum turn,” says Owino, putting his shoulder into spinning the contraption.

Stylish, affordable, unusual

What comes out is softer, darker and less smelly. The skins are then descaled, stretched and dried again, becoming workable leather.

Fella Atieno is a fish leather shoe designer, making sandals, boots and other footwear.

Everything is done by hand with only a pen, a pair of scissors, some glue and dye.

The result is distinctive products, with scale patterns reminiscent of crocodile or snake skin, but at a fraction of the price.

Shoes sell for 1,500 shillings (around $15) and jackets for 2,000 (around $20).

Allan Ochieng, a student working with Owino, looks forward to earning “thousands of shillings” once his training is complete.

“In addition to creating jobs for slum dwellers, we also offer leather products that they can afford,” said Owino.

His customers agree.

“If we have fish, why can’t we be proud of our fish and use it more economically?” says Lawrence Odero, who is visiting the workshop.

“So, when I put on the shoes made from fish leather, I put on the cap as well as the jacket I feel happy! I feel very proud,” he adds.

While there are other tanneries in town, Owino’s is the only one specialising in fish leather.

He says he uses a chemical-free tanning process for his unique products.

And he hopes to expand his business with a manufacturing school and training facility for prospective fish tanners.

“We actually [have] the vision of establishing a leather school so that we could pass on this knowledge on technology to other people. Not just doing it for ourselves,” Owino says.

MOST VIEWED

  • Reports: Rainsy barred from Jakarta flight

    Sam Rainsy was on Wednesday refused entry to a flight from Malaysia to Indonesia, media reported late on Wednesday. The “acting president” of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party’s announced return to the Kingdom on Independence Day on Saturday failed to occur. Rainsy

  • Government studying EU’s preliminary report on EBA

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation on Wednesday said the government was studying the EU Commission’s preliminary report on the human rights situation in the Kingdom that could lead to a suspension of access to its “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement. The

  • Gov’t: Rainsy’s ‘coup plot’ a failure

    The government on Wednesday commended the Kingdom’s security forces for thwarting the attempted “coup plot” by former opposition leader Sam Rainsy through his announced return to Cambodia on November 9. The comments came as Rainsy, the “acting president” of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue

  • Rainsy blocked from boarding flight to Jakarta

    Sam Rainsy was on Wednesday refused entry to a flight from Malaysia to Indonesia, media reported late on Wednesday. The "acting president" of the Cambodia National Rescue Party's announced return to the Kingdom on Independence Day on Saturday failed to occur. Rainsy arrived in Kuala

  • Tour guides question animal release ban in Angkor moat

    The Khmer Angkor Tour Guide Association (Katga) called on the Apsara National Authority to reconsider its decision banning all animals from being released into the moat surrounding the Angkor Wat temple after the authority prohibited the action for the sake of visitors’ safety. An Apsara

  • Kingdom to import 200MW from Lao hydropower plant

    Cambodia plans to import 200MW of electricity from Laos’ Don Sahong hydropower plant early next year to curb power shortages this coming dry season, with the transmission line network scheduled for completion later this year, Ministry of Mines and Energy spokesman Victor Jona said. Jona,